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Impact of Mobile Communications on Construction Industry


The total annual turnover of the building and construction industry in most economies around the world amounts to billions of dollars per annum, contributing approximately 10 per cent of GDP (Olomolaiye et al, 1998, quoted in Farin et al 2001). Although the Construction sector is pivotal in any economy as noted above, it is however an industry which is plagued by inefficiency which is caused by the lack of communication within organisations involved in the delivery of a project solution. According to Bowden and Thorpe (2002), 65% of contractor rework is attributed to insufficient, inappropriate and conflicting information on construction sites. The problem of communication on most construction sites are exacerbated because many operatives working in the field capture data manually (or maybe use a standalone handheld device) which is then physically transported to office. The information may then have to be manually keyed into the office computer system. This process is time consuming and requires extra workforce to re-enter data into the office computer.

The introduction of Internet and communication technologies has seen the urgency in the expectations of people within the industry to have access to the latest information produced at any point in the project life. These expectations reflect the increasingly competitive pressure within the construction sector to deliver quicker and cheaper solutions. It also reflects the increased electronic awareness that internet use has cultured, realising a one-stop ‘information on demand’ medium. The invention of handheld computing device enabled with a suitable wireless capability has proved a valuable innovation which reduces travel costs, increase operative efficiency, and speed data transfer. Data can easily be keyed on site and communicated wirelessly to the office computer. This information can further be uploaded on from the computer to the internet or extranet enabling faster and quicker process which reduces times. The use of project extranet solutions (a single project database shared by all project members: Client; Designer; Contractors; Suppliers) and document management systems is now common on large projects. Mobile communication technologies therefore can strategically be implemented to reduce cost and increase returns on investment. There are many applications of mobile communications in the construction industry. This report however focuses on the impact of mobile communication technologies in the construction industry.

2. Mobile Communication

Mobile communication is a technology that eases communication by linking individuals or groups who are not physically present at the same location via wireless means. There are various software and hardware been used such as PDA, mobile phones, CAD application, data capture, project management etc. The mobile phone is still the king of mobile communication, and it has evolved to include smart features such as picture messaging, diary management, e-mail and web browsing. Likewise, many handheld computers (Personal Digital Assistants) are being produced with phone capabilities. For many individuals however, affordable smart phones have become feature rich enough to lure them away from their handheld computer, mainly because smart phones are more compact (Kinns and Babtie, 2005).

As smart phones win over the personal computing device market, handheld computers are being developed more for the business computing market. Users in this market are more willing to sacrifice device size for increased computing power, and so devices such as the Tablet PC and Ultra Personal Computer (uPC) are being developed.

Unlike most personal use, business use of mobile communication is concerned with the transfer of all forms of electronic data. Equally important is the way in which data and information is captured, and then managed to ensure it is readily available to other people/ devices when and where required. Improved cost effective mobile computing power will further reduce the office/ field divide.

The uptake of integrated mobile communication & computing devices and services has been significant. This growth in use will continue as smart phone devices gain more features, and handheld computers gain increased computing power. This is the belief of many leading players within the construction and telecom industries. Companies need to plan for this wireless future, and exploit the expected growth in their business strategies.


With the introduction of laptops into the work environment as a substitute for personal computers, the potential of the mobile worker became evident(Bowden et al, 2005).

3.1. Reduction in construction time and capital cost of construction

According to (Bowden et al., 2005) mobile technologies can help minimise time and cut capital cost in the construction industry. Generic benefits of the provision of mobile technologies to point of activity workers include: doing away with retyping/redrafting, minimizing travel time in order to retrieve information and cut travel time to view point of actions or activities. Further explanation of cost savings and time are touched on in each of the developments assisted by mobile technologies below.

3.2. Reduction in operation and maintenance costs

Mobile technology can help reduce maintenance cost and operation by improving upon the efficiency of workers and as well gather and provide information throughout the life cycle of a building or structure. The following construction industries (Network Rail’s London, North East and East Anglia Region) are using a PDA, GPS and GIS system to perform earthworks checks; look at the integrity of their embankments and cuttings. Network Rail currently obtains data from the inspections team on a week to week basis instead of waiting till the end of a 4-month inspection. This allows Network Rail to proactively organise their workload systematically. Getting Data using GIS can easily be grouped by condition enabling the identification of all ‘poor’ earthworks, including their location (automatically recorded by the GPS). A maintenance team can then be instructed to rectify groups of faults in a single pass. Within 1 year Network Rail achieved benefits for the solution(Bowden, 2004).

GPRS connected to PDA has been implemented by Rosser and Russell for obtaining new developments in terms of information from their maintenance engineers and delivering work orders. This has caused a significant change in administration required to accomplish their maintenance operation (Gooding, 2004).

According to (Gooding and Bowden, 2004) GPS trackers are been utilised by Biwater for the implementation of fleet management system. This has given them the opportunity to able to analyse and track the actual position of their maintenance crews. Time has reduced drastically since the nearest crew to an incident could be spot on and instructed. The improved planning and implementation has considerably reduced maintenance cost, mileage, and also the fuel costs of the fleet.

3.3. Reduction in defects

There have been several changes in national initiative that challenge the construction industry to target zero defects in handover. An example, even though Egan(Egan, 1998)came up with target for United Kingdom construction industry as a 20% annual reduction in the number of defects on handover, Egan proposed that there is considerably number of evidence which suggests that within 5 years the aim of zero defects could be achieved across the construction industry.

Egan again touched on how some clients in the United States and the United Kingdom have already attained zero defects on handover. Taylor Woodrow and Mace piloted digital pen and paper solution and PDA solution respectively in their project. Both results gave them the knack to gather data electronically at source in a standardized format, and later were stored in a central database. The following trends could be searched on the database; reoccurring fault, re-offending subcontractors and setbacks in correcting errors. The various trends could be outline proactively. An additional benefit of having a central system for defect management is that the costs of rectifying snags can begin to be understood and hence a more proactive approach to managing quality throughout the construction process should be adopted to avoid these costs(Sommerville et al, 2004).

According to (Newton, 1998) a research conducted in Australia depicted that 65% of contractor-rework is attributed to inadequate, unsuitable or contradictory information. Tablet PC system linked to a central database via a wireless LAN was developed by

3.4. Reduction in accidents

For workers to report near misses, Mobile technologies could provide a mechanism that would increase the number of near misses reported in the construction industry. Those areas which need improvement in terms of electronic data could be analysed and highlighted. According to (Kiser and Fosbroke, 1994) the most common fatal injury is falling from height. OSHA Fall-Safe programme in the USA came up with a tablet PC audit tool(Becker et al, 2001). The work concluded that contractor control of fall hazards were improved when the conduct of an audit and the reports were generated. Next to fall from height are workers being struck by a moving vehicle which accounted for 10 fatalities in the UK in 2003/2004. In the Oil and Gas industry work is been carried out on the application of virtual exclusion zones for oil platform cranes. Cameras mounted on a crane boom can compute the position of personnel in an area hence could provide audible alert for the crane driver and personnel who are in danger. Although, some vehicles give audible alerts this caution is not directed specifically to the person in danger and can be overlooked and identified as surrounding noise. This virtual exclusion or information zone could be utilized in the construction industry providing warning around machinery such as piling rigs or cranes and to provide information when entering areas with specific safety requirements.

A step further along the line towards improving health and safety on-site is the possibility of automated construction, eliminating the need for personnel to be in dangerous areas. An example application is presented by

3.5. Reduction in waste

Construction and demolition (C&D) debris constitutes the waste generated during construction, renovation, and demolition projects. C&D waste commonly includes building materials and products such as concrete, asphalt, wood, glass, brick, metal, gypsum wallboard, roofing, insulation, doors, windows and frames, flooring, and furniture.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that approximately 136 million tons of building-related C&D debris were generated in 1996 — the majority from demolition (48%) and renovation (44%). New construction generated only 8% of building-related C&D debris(Fishbein, 1998).

The first step in understanding and reducing wastage on-site is to know what materials and equipment have been delivered. Several construction suppliers are currently considering or piloting Mobile IT solutions to facilitate their goods delivery process, providing electronic goods received notes (GRNs) and proof of delivery. A commonly held view is that the weakest point of the supply chain in the construction industry is the site; paper gets delivered and then lost. It may not get filed properly and the people on-site have no real awareness of how all the documents in the supply chain are linked. Lost GRNs are a huge problem for both the contractor and the supplier. One supplier stated that out of 4.5 million tickets issued each year contractors asked them to replace 300,000 GRNs. A contractor stated that on a £45M project £133,000 of invoices was being queried on any one day; Chen et al, 2002). The benefits achieved in relation to waste reduction include:

  • faster location of materials/equipment;
  • certainty that only the correct materials are used, reducing costs associated with damaged items;
  • reduction in lost or stolen items;
  • easier maintenance of a materials tracking database.

CPIC (Centre for Performance Improvement in Construction) has developed a toolkit for measuring performance on-site; CALIBRE 2000. Wastage in time, materials and energy are collected by construction “observers” using a PDA device, which is then synchronised with a central database. The PDA enables information to be collected in real-time and it is then available for analysis by the site team the next day. (Chen et al, 2002).According to (Chen et al, 2002)suggest the use of bar-codes to facilitate a crew-based incentive reward programme (IRP). The workers are rewarded according to the amounts and values of materials they saved from their operations. This resulted in a 10% saving of material wastage.

In both of these examples the drawback is that collection of the data still requires manual intervention. (Li et al, 2005). This reduces the possibility of damage to materials from ingress of weather and movement of people, plant and equipment within temporary storage facilities.

As stated above, the majority of C&D waste is generated during demolition and renovation. RFID tagging provides the capability of attaching information permanently to building components, which in turn offers the opportunity to provide future owners with information about the make-up of each component. Items can then be easily identified for recycling or reuse; even those items that cannot currently be recycled may be recyclable in the future. This would eliminate some of the prohibitive costs associated with identifying and sorting materials, making recycling a more viable option.

3.6. Increase in productivity

Productivity is defined as the ratio of the amount of work produced to the resources used in its production. Productivity is increased if it takes fewer resources to do the same amount of work, or the same number of resources can achieve more. The drive for improved productivity in the construction industry has come with the recognition that productivity is inextricably linked to international competitiveness(Teicholz, 2004). Several of the national construction change initiatives promote the use of information technology as a tool to increase productivity, through automating tasks and enhancing collaboration.

Task automation provides the following productivity enhancements:

  • delivery of required information e.g. method statements;
  • production of reports e.g. daily progress reports;
  • alerts e.g. notification of safety hazard;
  • data collation, reduces number of administration staff required.

One area where significant losses in productivity occur is downtime on-site due to unforeseen problems. The opportunity for mobile technologies to provide immediate access, from the point of activity, to the personnel which may be able to resolve the problem has been an ongoing subject of research(Ballard and Howell, 1994). The Last Planner system has been set up to facilitate this method of planning and its toolset includes:

  • collaborative programming;
  • look-ahead meeting;
  • weekly work plan meeting.

The premise is that better planning improves productivity by reducing delays, getting the work done in the best constructability sequence, matching manpower to available work, and coordinating multiple interdependent activities

3.7. Increase in predictability

The construction industry is noted for its delays in project delivery and over budget(Bourn, 2001). This is engineered by the following reasons methods of procurement, communication issues and culture. This section of the industry could be transformed by using mobile technology to provide precise real-time progress and cost information as the project progresses. In the above sections it can be observed that communication enhancement from one phase to the other became possible and in some situations have been achieved by most of the construction industries. The following Mobile applications are already in use progress reporting, timesheet, materials management and plant utilisation. This should now pave a way for most construction industries to compare and contrast planned programmes or budget and use this information in future projects.


4.1 Software and Hardware Innovations in Mobile Communications

4.1.1 Software

Mobile CAD applications: Mobile devices equipped with CAD applications used by Construction personnel can mark-up, view, create and edit 2D/3D AutoCAD compatible designs at any place at anytime on construction site. CAD application may contact engineers, drafters and designers etc. who needs supports of designs and drawings in the construction site. Majority of mobile CAD applications are compatible with well-known mobile devices that run Windows mobile and Windows CE operating systems (COMIT, 2003). In order to communicate drawing files with desktop PCs, mobile CAD applications can connect and swap data with PCs by using ActiveSync for Windows OS or HotSync for Palm OS. The following are some of the CAD applications been used PocketCAD, PowerCAD and ZipCAD.

Data capture applications: Bar code scanning, wireless sensors network and data capture are the three various types of data capture application used on sites. One of the mobile data capture system known as SHERPA enable users to collect real time piling work data by using mobile computers through a wireless local area network (WLAN) (Ward et al., 2003). Mobile construction chain supply(M-ConSCM) also named as bar- code enabled PDA, has been developed to create convenience and improve information flow in the construction supply chain environment through the integration of bar code scanner and PDA combined (Tserng and Dzeng, 2005). A new innovation has come into play i.e. Wireless sensor network that consists of various devices capable of a cooperative sensing task and is compared with the concept of ubiquitous computing. A mass concrete curing management system (CMS) has been developed to investigate the possibility of applying wireless sensor network to on-site data collection processes (Lee and Kang, 2006). This system can allow the collection, transfer, and delivery of the recorded curing temperature data automatically in real time in a wireless sensor network environment.

Project management applications: Applications in the project administration area provide users with the capabilities of project and programme management such as construction activity review, activity monitoring and updating, progress management, risk management, Microsoft Project file view and update, and material and equipment management, through their on-hand mobile computers. Available commercial applications include Primavera Mobile Management, CYtools, and OnSite FDM.

4.1.2 Hardware

Palmtops / PDA – Personal Digital Assistance

PDA (Personal Digital Assistant), sometimes known as a Palmtop, is a mobile computer that allows you to store, access, and organize information. More sophisticated PDAs can run word processing, spreadsheet and industry specific applications and also provide e-mail and internet process. Some models now offer the functionality of a mobile phone and a PDA in a single unit. These units use either a Palm or Microsoft Windows Pocket PC operating system. In general, the more functions offered on the device, the shorter the battery life. Currently, there are no rugged devices available in this category, since they could be seen as more akin to a non-rugged mobile phone. Many of these devices use an electronic pen (called a stylus) rather than a keyboard for input. This is associated with special operating systems that support handwriting recognition so that users can write on the screen or on a tablet instead of typing on a keyboard.

Hand-held Computers

A hand-held computer offers the main functionality of a laptop in a smaller package. They feature a full QWERTY style keyboard and a landscape display. Typically, they run on a Windows-based operating system, like a desktop PC. Because they have a keyboard, this type of device is probably best suited where it can be used on a stable base, for example in a pick-up truck. Although the Windows CE OS is more demanding on battery life and memory, many of the devices will compensate for this by providing more memory space and larger capacity batteries as standard.

4.2 Health and Safety

One of the most hazardous industries to work in the is the construction industry; it is noted that 3.6 per 100,000 workers in the United Kingdom encounter fatal injury, associating with 70 people, depicts an unfavourably average of 0.81 in the industry(Mckerman, 2001).

4.2.1 Case Study (Health and Safety-Skanka)

The civil engineering division of Skanska known as Skanska Tekra Oya in Finland is currently using SMS/WAP and MMM based system which propels them to collect data electronically by using the supervisor’s phone. It then passes problem notifications on to the subcontractors who then respond with via SMS when problem is resolved. Issues which took days to complete could be dealt with in few hours and since then accidents have decreased drastically with the use of the system. The gathered data are stored on a central database facilitating the classification of trends to be automated. Continual non application can be emphasized and a more positive approach of doing away with their reoccurrence can be established, such as training preventative measures put in place e.g. warning signs placed at dangerous areas and barriers around overhead electricity cables. In addition, subcontractors who are time and again causing safety issues and are reluctant in putting an end to them can be dealt with properly. Finnish Institute of Occupational Health came up with a mobile system that replicates MVR safety method for civil engineers and is used in most construction industry in Finland. Coming up with a single tool and comparing across construction sites will smooth the progress of improvement hence reduce. The “Accident Triangle”(Heinrich et al, 1980)illustrates that fatal injuries are just the tip of the iceberg (Fig 1). Theory states that “if you reduce the number of near misses, this in turn will reduce the number of fatalities”. The records show near misses is performing badly. The reason could be the number of times they occur and the amount of paperwork that has to be completed and recorded.

5. Emerging Trends and innovation

The core reason of mobile in the built environment is its mobility. Mobile phones (speech and text messages), cameras in cell phones, GPRS are the commonly used within the construction industry. In terms of logistics, quality control and control of equipment, RFID reader is applied. Additional use of RFID is the access right control, emerging in janitorial services; access rights controls and mobile access managements with very short-range wireless point-to-point interconnection technology. This technology is likely to become common in mobile phones, and in fact such kinds of phones are been in use in the industry offering intuitive and user-friendly touched based communication. The interactions that exit between the two devices are reasonable in terms of price and also low immunity to eavesdropping. According to (Tolman et al., 2006b) the new messaging and communication systems been used gives current method and possibilities to communicate and manage with embedded sensors networks in a buildings with general terminal equipments through local or global information networks. During the past decade the port of services has been rated as one of the most powerful trends in information technology. Services offered by web can be thought as environment where services are delivered in a formal way and this formal are interpreted by client side browsers. With the nature of all browsers been able to use all services it is of no importance to install locally specific software to use a specific service. Web paradigm is gradually taking place in mobile devices but there have been several impediments that slow down the trend. In technology mobile browsers are not in the same level as compared with that of desktop browsers and top of that since the web has been design with more resources, the of resources in mobile devices are limited hence makes it a problem. That indicates that mobile devices that use web pages should be designed for them. Web paradigm is a natural fit to mobile devices as distributing software to mobile devices is cumbersome and leads to difficult maintenance problems.

6. Challenges of mobile Technology in the construction industry

Though the above benefits of mobile technology shows a headway for most construction industry in using mobile technology there are several challenges faced by the industry that needs to be addressed.

6.1. Hardware for Mobile Technology

Handheld computers, lightweight and compact laptops have come into extensive use over the past few years; other devices like wearable computers are also making great impact as well. Where improvement has been sluggish the integration ofmobilehardware seams to bridge a user’s desktop, activities whilemobile, and the Internet. There are four basic issues that complicate implementation and design (Satyanarayanan, 1996). In relation to static element mobile elements are resource-poor in terms of weight, size and power. Due to the transmission of data through open space mobile communication are vulnerable to security violation. In addition, wireless connectivity is very unpredictable in reliability and performance. Finally,mobile elements must rely on limited energy sources. It is important to note that these issues are not artifacts of current technology but are intrinsic to mobility. Collectively, they complicate the design ofmobile technologysystems. As a result, even though important research progress has been conducted, the implementation and design of mobile computing systems still remain a problem.

6.2. Location-Sensing

One of the most widely used location-sensing today is the Global Positioning System (GPS). Using time-of-flight information derived from radio signals broadcast by a group of satellites in earth orbit. GPS makes it possible for a relatively cheap receiver (on the order of $100 today) to deduct latitude, longitude, and altitude to an accuracy of a few meters (Hightower and Borriello, 2001). The U.S. Department of Defence maintained the expensive satellite infrastructure, but with the investment been made many civilian benefits from it. Without a doubt, the past few years there has been a real sudden increase of GPS-based services for the consumer market. Although GPS is certainly important its location mechanism is not universally applicable. It cannot function indoors, particularly in places where there are steel-framed buildings and for many applications its resolution of a few meters is not adequate. GPS requires coordinates relative to specific objects whereas some applications (e.g., guidance systems for robotic equipment) use an absolute coordinate system. Further, the specific mechanism required for GPS impose cost, energy use requirements and weight that are difficult formobilehardware. Consequently, the following mechanism for tracking location (e.g., active badges, e911, and Cricket) considerably varies in their capabilities and infrastructure requirement. System costs vary as well, reflecting different trade-offs among device portability, device expense, and infrastructure needs. For applications involvingmobileobjects, orientation sensing (determining the direction an object faces) is also important, and this continues to be an active area of research.

6.3. Wireless Communications

There has been a tremendous growth in the deployment of wireless communication technologies in the past decade. Although there has been considerable increase in data communication technologies, the most recognised one is voice communication (cell phones) which has been the primary driver. With many vendors offering hardware that supports the IEEE 802.11, wireless LAN technologies is now widely embraced in the construction industry (Williams, 2000). Although Bluetooth offers no bandwidth advantage as compared with 802.11, its standard has been backed by a number of hardware and software vendors and it is cheap to produce and frugal in power demand (Haartsen, 2000). The lowest-cost wireless technology in the market is the Infrared wireless communication this is due to the fact that it is primarily used in TV remote controls. IrDA supports handheld computers, laptops and other peripherals devices like printer been used today. Infrared wireless communication must be by line of sight, with range limited to a few feet. It is also affected adversely by high levels of ambient light, such as prevail outdoors during daylight hours.

Greenhalgh claim that WI-FI network do perform well in open space when on construction site, due to the fact that when projects starts, getting wireless signals is easy but at a stage when they are boxed there seems to be interferences (COMIT, 2003). It is difficult to foresee what new wireless technologies will emerge in the future. Power consumption clearly will be an important factor for untethered devices, such asmobile computers, PDAs, and Smart Dust. In addition, it is clear that advances will be constrained by trade-offs among four factors: frequency, bandwidth, range, and density of wired infrastructure. Devices operating at a higher frequency could have greater bandwidth but would require major advances in high-frequency very-large-scale integration (VLSI) design. Advances also will be constrained by policy decisions on frequency usage (spectrum allocation) by the Federal Communications Commission. Range is fundamentally related to transmission power, but generating high power at high frequency always has been a difficult technical challenge. This is not a short-term annoyance but a core, long-term requirement of successful system architectures

6.4. Privacy and Trust

Mobile computing and distributed system have been experiencing problems when it comes to privacy and this is greatly complicated by pervasive computing. Smart spaces, surrogates imonitor and location tracking are mechanisms used on a continuous basis. As a users keep on depending on this pervasive computing systems, they get more knowledge about the behaviour pattern, habits and the movement. Utilising this information becomes vital to successful proactivity and self-tuning. In addition, unless information used is strictly controlled, they will be unsafe from targeted spam to blackmail. Indeed, the constant loss of confidentiality will discourage users from using computing system. Greater dependence on mobile communications on site means that users should have confidence in that infrastructure to a considerable extent. On the other hand, the infrastructure has to be confident enough to authorise and identify users credential before responding to request. It is very challenging to create this mutual trust in a manner that is minimally intrusive and thus preserves invisibility. Privacy and trust are likely to be enduring problems in Mobile communication technology in the construction industry.

7. Conclusion

The current usage of mobile communication in the construction industry brings many change improvements wished for within the industry by enabling point of activity workers to participate in the electronic flow of information using mobile technologies. Although this is not the only solution to the problems to be addressed, it does offer the potential of significant impact in reducing construction time and cost, defects, accidents, waste

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